Equivocation is a kind of logical fallacy where two definitions of a word are used within an argument, and the conclusion is based off of confusing one definition for the other. For instance,
Socrates is a manIn the first premise, 'man' means male, but in the second premise 'man' means humanity. By assuming the two words mean the same thing, you come to an illogical conclusion and one that in this case if obviously false.
Man covers the globe.
Therefore Socrates covers the globe.
Now, perhaps a more relevant example:
Nothing comes from nothingHowever, the word 'nothing' in premise one refers to literal nothingness, as in non-being. However, in premise two the word 'nothing' refers to a quantum vacuum, which is a repository of energetic fields, not literal nothingness. Therefore the word 'nothing is being equivocated.
But in quantum mechanics, elementary particles can pop into existence from nothing.
Therefore premise one is false.
Equivocation is generally a kind of mistake. Unlike most of what I talk about in these discussions on rhetoric, we are not discussing a rhetorical style as much as a tendency that I've noticed within the rhetoric. No one equivocates intentionally, and it is generally a result of sloppy writing, miscommunication between disciplines, or simple ignorance.
Apart from the example given above, most of the equivocation that I see coming from atheists is generally based on theological terms. There seems to be a disinterest in trying to understand where the theist is actually coming from. While I understand that it is inappropriate for me to expect the average atheist to understand theological language, once that atheist attempts to become a critic of religion and theology, he then has the responsibility of knowing he's talking about. But the New Atheists seem to disagree. Theology, just like any discipline, has its jargon, and one cannot assume to understand what philosophers and theologians mean by terms like "omnipotence" or "faith" because you heard the terms the last time you were in Sunday School when you were 12. There have been centuries of discussion about these ideas, and many of them have been refined over the ages. It is every one's duty to interact with the best that a position has to offer (or, like I am doing here, admit you are dealing with only a sect).
Equivocation In Action
The examples that I have chosen are the ones that I feel are the most problematic in terms of how atheists understand what they are dealing with. In this regard, their misunderstanding of what 'religion' means is quite important. When pushed, most atheists would define religion by a belief in a higher power or God. However, most Atheists would recognize Buddhism as a religion, even though classic Buddhism doesn't believe in God, and they would also recognize Deism as not being a religion but rather a philosophy. Sometimes, they would criticize religion as the belief in God, and other times they will emphasize that the problem with religion is the belief in a God who answers prayers, which is more of an recognition of 'religion' meaning something deeper. So what exactly is a religion?
A better definition of religion is an organized system of thought that incorporates a worldview and daily practices, especially ritual. Recognizing that atheism is actually a worldview, and not simply disbelief, some theists have referred to Atheism itself as a religion. This is actually untrue, seeing how there are no rituals connected to Atheism. Atheism is more of a philosophy. But the atheist is quite right is noticing that most religions tend to believe in gods, and belief in gods generally leads to religion. However, religious tenancy and actually religion aren't really the same thing.
But that said, Atheism isn't the antithesis of religion for religion isn't simply the belief in God. Atheism itself is a full and positively asserted worldview just like the philosophy of Christianity or any other religion, and an atheist cannot define religion in terms of that ritual in some arguments, and yet restrict the term 'religion' as a type of worldview other times.
This comes down to one simple argument that Atheists tend to use (though it comes out in a variety of ways). Often times they will say, "well Christians don't believe in the myriad of other gods that others believe in; we simply go one god further." However, inherent within this argument is an equivocation.
The term 'god' in this context is understood in ontological or taxonomical terms. In other words, the term is used to denote the type of being that we are talking about.This is sort of a correct definition since this is how monotheists tend to use the word. However, the God of the Bible is as different from Thor as a human is from an ant. When used across religions in this way, this definition clearly breaks down and ceases to make sense. Thor isn't a god in the same way as Adonai.
When we are dealing with the word in terms of inter-religious studies, it is better to define it in relational terms: a god is a being who is worshipped. A being is innately a god, would be a being is worthy of worship due to its innate nature (which would certainly apply to Adonai).
Thus in this argument, and its variants, the Atheist is equivocating the philosophical definition of 'God' with the inter-religious definition of 'god', resulting in a confused argument. There are other problems with the above argument, but those do not apply to the topic of this post.
The End Result
There isn't so much a result of equivocation as much as equivocation is a result. It is fundamentally what happens when someone doesn't bother to learn the position that they are criticizing. This is overall a good lesson for us Christians as well, because often we use arguments grounded in ignorance or misunderstanding as well. We cannot assume our position when talking to someone who isn't familiar with it. We need to speak truth in their language as much as we can, which means learning that language.
In terms of when atheists use such arguments, it is really our advantage. Ignorant arguments only convince the ignorant. We need to recognize how they are misconstruing things, correct them, and then challenge them on their ignorance. Simple correction isn't sufficient because if they are ignorant of this, then it is likely they are ignorant of other things.
And don't simply say, "Have you even read the Bible?", but it isn't reading that is important but understanding it. There are a plethora of people out there, both who claim to be Christian and those who don't, who have read the Bible from cover to cover. It is more important to encourage them to be inquisitive, to talk to experts, and to read commentaries and scholars if they are truly interested in engaging Christianity. Remember, it isn't argument that changes a person's mind. Arguments are designed to give someone the intellectual permission to consider Christianity, but it is ultimately the Spirit who convinces someone.